“What’s in a Text” is a serial column written by Lia Wallace, the dramaturg of our Spring Season production of As You Like It, that investigates how choices made on the page affect choices made on the stage. Each issue examines a moment of textual uncertainty within Shakespeare’s canon, illuminating the legacy of choices left for theatre practitioners to make today.
A condensed version of this particular article is featured as a part of the season’s context boards, which are located in the upper lobby of the Blackfriars Playhouse. For more full-length content like this, consider signing up for ASC’s Education Newsletter, a quarterly newsletter full of useful educator content and road-ready lessons plans. To inquire about receiving the newsletter or becoming a member of our Little Academe on Slack (an exclusive, all-access pass to ASC’s Educational Materials and Education Artists) email our team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have what one might call an immature sense of humor. Don’t use the word “duty” if you don’t want me to giggle. I keep a running list of the funniest instances of the conjunction “but” throughout Shakespeare, because it is a homonym for “butt” and it is a universal truth that butts are hilarious. (Everyone knows “call me but[t] love” from Romeo and Juliet 2.1, but what about “words are but[t] wind” from The Comedy of Errors 3.1 or “you do but[t] dally” from Hamlet 5.1? And I have so much more where that came from.) Long story short, if a crass double meaning can possibly be found, in Shakespeare or anywhere else, I will find it.
Though I go out of my way to make even innocent homonyms scandalous, one doesn’t actually have to work very hard to find the smut in Shakespeare. His plays are fantastically dirty! I’d go so far as to say none of his plays are without some measure of sexual content, from the glancing (but constant) references to genitalia in As You Like It to the obsession with fornication underpinning the entire plot of Measure for Measure. Sex is an important part of the human experience, so it makes sense to me that sexual issues appear frequently and feature heavily in the works of so great a chronicler of humanity as Shakespeare — though I do think it tends to surprise some audiences nowadays, as if Shakespeare’s reputation as English’s greatest wordsmith was built on the propriety of his poetry. Nothing could be further from the truth, and a student’s moment of scandalized recognition and excitement when discovering a particularly clever double entendre is among the best cures for “Shakesfear” I’ve ever found. Given Shakespeare’s permanent place in the American public school curriculum, I’d be willing to bet those moments happen countless times each day.
Could that be about to change? With the passing of SB 656 in 2022, Virginia schools are now required to notify parents proactively about any “sexually explicit content” contained in any instructional material and provide “alternative, nonexplicit instructional material” for any student upon parental request. The bill’s definition for “sexually explicit content” includes (among other things) any description of sexual excitement or sexual conduct — a sweeping definition that could make Shakespeare’s timeless sexiness vulnerable to Virginian censorship-by-parent. I’m not worried about Shakespeare’s plays, which have won every battle in their 400-year+ war with censorship, but I do find the various functions of censorship within Shakespeare’s plays fascinating — especially how they’ve shifted over time.
Never have Shakespeare’s plays existed independent from a censorial pen, on page or stage, for reasons both moral and logistic. The logistics side cares about the realities of public performance: an audience expecting two hours’ traffic of the stage will not find it it in an intact As You Like It clocking in at 2 hours 21 minutes in an uncut version of its 2,272 lines — assuming a consistent speaking pace of 2.5 words/second (or ~20 lines/minute) and no extraneous action, luxurious pauses, or elaborate dance numbers, which many performances of the play have had. Indeed, most productions throughout the centuries-long performance history of Shakespeare have been cut in some form or another, and the freedom to cut for logistics allows performance companies to cut for morals as well, often without much comment.
The moral side is therefore not absent from the stage, but rather of more note on the page: released from the constraints of performance, editors of Shakespeare are free to offer as many words as the author provides, along with their own commentary, for publication. Editors throughout the centuries have offered their notes on Shakespeare, including what they find objectionable and why. Some editors go so far is to remove text from the page entirely rather than attempt to explain or otherwise contextualize it, believing its very existence does more harm than good. We have been studying and performing Shakespeare for long enough to use the performance history of his plays as a look into the cultural norms of various times: what gets removed from Shakespeare throughout history, whether from the page or the stage, and why? Overall, I believe we censor content we think harmful to protect those we think it will harm.
The First Censors: cutting blasphemy and insults
Virginia’s 21st-century legislature isn’t the first to fret over sexually explicit content, but that wasn’t really the focus for Shakespeare’s earliest censors: the officials in the office of the Master of the Revels, eventually headed by the Lord Chamberlain, whose job was to secure appropriate entertainment for the monarch. The Master of the Revels therefore reviewed all plays before licensing them for performance in the public playhouses, and removed any content that might be objectionable — meaning blasphemous or insulting to prominent people. So from the very beginning, we see the protective aim of the censor’s job: to honor God and save souls from damnation by censoring blasphemy, and to honor the nobility and prevent scandal by censoring negative references to prominent people.
Enough blasphemy made it onstage despite the Lord Chamberlain’s oversight that in 1606 Parliament passed the Act to Restrain Abuses of Players, making it illegal for actors to take the Lord’s name in vain during performance. If we can trust the surviving printed editions of the plays as accurate records of performance trends (which is not at all a given, but is a safe enough hypothetical for a thought experiment) then we can see evidence of this legislation in plays with editions printed both before and after 1606; where the former might print a specific religious oath or expression (e.g. “for God’s love”) the latter might print something more generic (e.g. “for Heaven’s love”) instead, as in the example below, from Hamlet:
Other religious oaths might just be omitted completely, as in this line from Act 2, Scene 2 where Hamlet asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?” The preceding exclamation changes from the oaths “Zownds” (or “God’s wounds”) in the 1603 First Quarto and “S’bloud” (or “God’s blood”) in the 1604/5 Second Quarto to the neutral inquisition “Why” in the 1623 First Folio:
Insults to Important People
Everyone’s main concern was keeping the monarch and their favorites happy, and the Lord Chamberlain was no different. Anything critical could be taken offensively by the people in power, and anything offensive to the people in power could get the playwright arrested if performed. (Shakespeare was rather adept at avoiding explicit references to the current events of the day, likely for this reason, and what may have been a calculated move on the part of a shrewd businessman looking to avoid arrest may have ended up also vaulting him into timelessness — plays are easier to adapt to different times if they are not particularly of any time to begin with.) Political commentary was therefore a risky business, as shown by King James I’s reaction to Thomas Middleton’s A Game at Chess, which satirizes the English conflict with Spain and paints King James in a rather unflattering light. According to Stephen Greenblatt’s, in 1624 the Spanish ambassador complained directly to King James I after seeing the play at the Globe, and the King responded by shutting down the playhouse, arresting all the players, and reprimanding the Master of the Revels for not only licensing the play, but allowing it nine performances (Shakespeare et al, 40).
Shakespeare wasn’t immune to satire’s allure, and the monarch wasn’t the only important person the censors sought to protect from mocking. Jean E. Howard explains how the character of the fat braggart knight Sir John Falstaff was originally named “Sir John Oldcastle” when he first appeared in Henry IV, Part 1, for example. According to Howard, the Lord Chamberlain had Shakespeare change the name due to objections from the Cobham family, descendants of the historical John Oldcastle, whose name had become synonymous with the Protestant cause after the historical King Henry IV executed Oldcastle for leading a religious rebellion against the crown in 1417. Howard believes that the Lord Chamberlain to review that play was none other than the tenth Baron Cobham himself, William Brooke, a direct descendant of Oldcastle who served as the head of the office of the Revels from August 1596-March 1597 and would have been perfectly placed not only to object to the unfavorable depiction of his ancestor, but also to do something about it (Shakespeare et al, 1183).
If Shakespeare did indeed write the character we know as Falstaff originally as Oldcastle, the name was changed before the publication of 1 Henry IV and probably before the first performance, and may therefore be evidence of authorial revision on Shakespeare’s part in response to censorship. Other potentially objectionable content in Shakespeare, such as the deposition in Act 4, Scene 1 of Richard II (missing from the 1597 Quarto printing but present in the 1623 Folio), were simply removed from certain publications — and perhaps performances — during the early modern era. The rest of the examples of editorial practice in this article similarly have not been so bold as to offer such authorial-level rewrites as Shakespeare perhaps did in changing Oldcastle to Falstaff, preferring to simply remove offending material whenever possible, and offer minimal, unobtrusive rewrites only where decency or grammar demands.
The Victorian Censors: cutting sex (and blasphemy, but mostly sex)
Nearly two hundred years after Shakespeare’s death in 1616, his plays were more popular than ever. Prominent cultural influencers (like actor-managers Thomas Betterton and David Garrick in the 17th and 18th centuries) had immortalized Shakespeare’s reputation as English’s greatest poet, and the air was thick with bardolatry. As edited editions of the plays became popular and widely available, more people began encountering them on the page instead of on the stage, where all the dirty jokes that may have been cut in performance could be found literally spelled out for all to see.
Concerns over who might (or should not) see such smut led siblings Thomas and Henrietta Bowdler to publish the first edition of The Family Shakespeare in 1807, in order to protect the innocent from the influence of the vulgar.
The Family Shakespeare had a very specific aim, as the preface to the first edition makes clear:
My great objects in this undertaking are to remove from the writings of Shakespeare some defects which diminish their value, and at the same time to present to the Public an edition of his plays, which the parent, the guardian, and the instructor of youth may place, without fear, in the hands of the pupil; and from which the pupil may derive instruction as well as pleasure; may improve his moral principles while he refines his taste; and, without incurring the danger of being hurt with any indelicacy of expression, may learn in the fate of Macbeth, that even a kingdom is dearly purchased, if virtue be the price of acquisition (Shakespeare and Bowdler, viii).
No longer concerned with the insults to important people that drove the Lord Chamberlain, the Bowdlers instead sought to “exclude from this publication whatever is unfit to be read aloud by a gentleman to a company of ladies” (viii). They still cared about blasphemy, but noted it as a minor concern because “the examples are by no means numerous” (vii). The real problem were the “words and expressions which are of such a nature as to raise a blush on the cheek of modesty,” which they worked strenuously to remove or amend (viii). Henrietta took point on the first edition of The Family Shakespeare, which contained only 20 plays, and Thomas spearheaded several subsequent editions, published over the next two decades, which expand that selection to the entire canon. The (highly subjective) process of expurgating all such material from a text became known, generally, as Bowdlerization, and Thomas Bowdler would go on to publish Bowdlerized editions of some chapters of the New Testament as well as Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Loughlin-Chow).
What did Bowdler remove from As You Like It?
In his Letter to the Editor of The British Critic printed in 1823, Thomas Bowdler proclaims: “As You Like It is by far the most beautiful of the sentimental comedies that have ever been written in any language in the world” (15). Yet, he still found enough objectionable material in Shakespeare’s text to warrant his personal intervention — though he ran into a problem trying to describe such material to his detractors, since he could not bring himself to print the offending material. Critics hoping to compare Bowdler’s version to Shakespeare’s complete text need to go on a sort of literary treasure hunt to find the text Bowdler is so determined to hide:
Let the parent who values the purity of his daughter’s mind … consider the last line of the verses which Touchstone repeats to Rosalind in the forest, and the speech of Celia in the same scene, which begins with the word “So you may” (Bowdler, 15).
Below, see the complete Folio text of “the verses which Touchstone repeats to Rosalind in the forest” (first image) compared to the text Bowdler set in his edition of the play (second image):
And here’s the full text transcribed out with modern spelling, and Bowdler’s cuts struck through:
For a taste.
If a Hart do lack a Hind,
Let him seek out Rosalind:
If the Cat will after kind,
so be sure will Rosalind:
Winter’d garments must be lin’d,
so must slender Rosalind:
They that reap must sheaf and bind,
then to cart with Rosalind.
Sweetest nut, hath sourest rind,
such a nut is Rosalind.
He that sweetest rose will find,
must find Love’s prick, and Rosalind.
We can see that Bowdler removed the two couplets with raunchier undertones, the first more sophisticated than the second (in my opinion):
- “Slender Rosalind” is in need of a winter coat’s bulkier lining, aka she needs some more junk in her trunk (according to Touchstone)
- “Love’s prick” must mean penis, so “sweetest rose” must refer to Rosalind’s vagina
Now let’s take a look at what he removed from “the speech of Celia in the same scene.” Again, the full Folio text is the first image, and Bowdler’s version is the second:
And the complete text, with modern spelling and Bowdler’s cuts struck through:
Good my complexion, dost thou think though I am caparisoned like a man, I have a doublet and hose in my disposition? One inch of delay more, is a South sea of discovery. I prithee tell me, who is it, quickly, and speak apace: I would thou couldst stammer, that thou mightst pour this concealed man out of thy mouth, as Wine comes out of a narrow-mouthed bottle: either too much at once, or none at all. I prithee take the Cork out of thy mouth, that I may drink thy tidings.
So you may put a man in your belly.
Is he of God’s making?What manner of man?
Is his head worth a hat? Or his chin worth a beard?
Nay, he hath but a little beard.
Bowdler removed Celia’s joke about Rosalind wanting to drink Celia’s tidings to “put a man in [her] belly,” which the editors of the Arden 3 As You Like It explains thusly: “The shape of the bottle and the wine coming out of it lead inevitably to Celia’s bawdy joke” (Shakespeare and Dunsinbarre, 251). I will go a step further than the Arden and just say it’s a joke about Rosalind performing oral sex on the male anatomy (with potential references to the state of pregnancy and general act of conception) — and one Bowdler did not want anyone’s daughters to hear.
Indeed, it seems that Bowdler really did not want anybody thinking about women’s bodies at all, regardless of the context — the mere mention of the existence of the female body (particularly female genitalia) would render a passage inappropriate in Bowdler’s eyes, regardless of overt bawdy intent. Let’s take a look at one more example, from Act 4, Scene 1 of As You Like It, where Bowdler removes more of Celia’s text:
And the modernized text, with Bowdler’s cuts struck through:
You have simply misused our sex in your love-prate: we must have your doublet and hose plucked over your head,
and show the world what the bird hath done to her own nest.
Shakespeare’s line may have specifically been inspired by the line “Is it not a foul bird defiles the own nest?” from Thomas Lodge’s prose romance Rosalynde, one of the sources for the story of As You Like It (Lodge, 12). Or he may just have generally been reworking what the editors of the Arden 3 As You Like It call “a scatological proverb” for his own purposes (Shakespeare and Dusinberre, 298). Either way, the sense of the line seems to be Celia reminding Rosalind that under the “doublet and hose” she’s donned to play the male part of Ganymede, she still has a vagina. The mere reminder of such a fact marked this line for Bowdlerization.
Today’s censors: cutting hate for time
Bowdler believed removing the sexual content from Shakespeare’s plays improved them; or at the very least did no harm. And though my modern mind finds his intentions misguided, I can see that his heart was in the right place: he truly wanted everybody to be able to enjoy Shakespeare, and he truly believe that the inclusion of such content prohibited vulnerable women and children from doing so safely. Harm reduction is a laudable goal, and one that guides my own hand as a modern censor of Shakespeare’s works today. I am not concerned with protecting audiences from blasphemy, or sex, but rather from the harmful perpetuation of racist and misogynistic language and tropes that abound casually throughout the early modern dramatic canon. I want everyone to be able to enjoy Shakespeare’s plays, not just white men, and while I do believe that on the page that language should be included and contextualized, on the stage I find fewer reasons to keep it.
The prologue to Romeo and Juliet promises “two hours’ traffic of the stage,” which the ASC still strives to deliver today. Our productions move at a brisk pace, and we can clip through ~1,200 lines per hour, but many of Shakespeare’s plays run longer than we could do uncut. Since the complete Folio text of As You Like It runs to 2,722 lines, our 90-minute production can only keep ~1,800 of them, meaning we have to get rid of about a third of the play. When cutting for time, casual misogyny and obvious racial slurs are low-hanging fruit for my editorial/censorial pen to remove. The constant anti-black linguistic bias and overall jokes about the gender binary running throughout the text are a little harder to cut, and that’s where I begin to dabble with out-and-out changes.
What did I remove from As You Like It? – slurs and casual hate
Like Bowdler, I do have a hard time printing some of the things I’ve removed, like racial slurs. In the interest of not sending you on a Bowdler-esque scavenger hunt for a slur I’d rather not print (but sure, go look for the term the Second Page uses in the line ending “on a horse” in the third scene of the fifth act of As You Like It) let’s look instead at an example where the necessary logistics of trimming for performance give us the opportunity to remove hateful language from our production.
In the passage below, Rosalind chastises the shepherd Silvius over his love for the shepherdess Phebe, who has sent Silvius to deliver a love letter on her behalf to “Ganymede” (aka Rosalind in disguise). In the process, Rosalind says a number of discriminatory and hurtful things, including: insulting Phebe’s hands for being rough from working, comparing “Turks” unfavorably to “Christians,” declaring “women’s gentle brain” of being incapable of rudeness, and using “Ethiop” and “blacker” as racist stand-ins for all things “bad.”
She hits classism, religious intolerance, misogyny, and racism in one fell swoop, and I’m happy to remove it from the stage the same way for this production — though not from every stage, and never from the page. This passage has plenty of performance possibilities if done with intention, and much value for discussion in the classroom and beyond. But as it does not serve the story our production wants to tell today, and since we need to get rid of a third of the play regardless, this sort of stuff is easy to remove.
What did I change in As You Like It?
Changes, for me, are harder to justify than cuts. When I encounter text that I believe will hit a modern ear in a harmfully racialized way, I will try to cut it first, like the example above. If I can’t cut it, I will propose alternate options to the director (if we have one) and/or the actor(s) involved in the moment that I believe preserve the overall meaning of the line as printed, but without the harmfully racialized connotations.
For example, let us return to the verse-reading of Act 3, Scene 2 that so troubled Bowdler, when Rosalind enters reading a poem she found on a tree. The Folio is on the left, and our script for the ASC’s 2023 Spring season production is on the right:
After discussion with director Jen Wineman, we changed “fairest” to “sweetest” (line 87) and “black” to “rank” (line 88), words that preserve the meter of the verse and were in common usage during Shakespeare’s time in addition to preserving the rhetoric device used in the original text: the color-based antithesis between fairest and black now appears as a scent-based antithesis between sweetest (i.e. best-smelling) and rank (i.e. rotten). We preserved the Folio’s “fair” at line 90 because it is not juxtaposed with a “dark” and therefore supposedly “undesirable” equivalent but rather used as a standalone adjective-turned-noun linked to Rosalind’s general beauty. You’ll hear it used that way throughout our production, often in reference to Rosalind, because I want to reinforce the race-neutral connection between “fair” and “beautiful” for the modern brain. That goal is nigh impossible in a moment like the Folio’s version of lines 87-8, when the play’s language holds explicitly the concept of “fair” as superior to the concept of “black,” but will be demanded by our production at line 90 no matter what, because semiotics matter. Actor Constance Swain plays Rosalind in this production, and she is both black and fair. Seeing and hearing her perform these lines as slightly re-written in our script links those two concepts together without being undercut by the casual anti-black undertones in the preceding lines.
My similarities to the Bowdlers are not lost on me: my practice is subjective, and designed to prevent what I have decided might be harmful from reaching those it might harm in the places I think it might harm them (it was the printed page for Bowdler; it is the Blackfriars Playhouse stage for me). Future ages may laugh at me just as I have laughed at him. I am aware of this. But my interventions, like Bowdler’s, are temporary: “the critic need not be afraid of employing his own pen; for the original will continue unimpaired” (Bowdler and Shakespeare, vii). Indeed, our changes do nothing to alter the “original” plays as they were printed, nor would I want them to: those plays still survive, and can be read and performed in their blasphemous, treasonous, sexual, racist glory at anytime, by anyone who chooses to do so — which they surely will, for ages to come.
I only wish I could be around to see what they’ll be choosing to censor in 2223.
Like this post? Be sure to share it and tag us on social media! Come see ASC’s Spring production of As You Like It now playing at the Blackfriars Playhouse through May 14, a part of our 35th Anniversary Artistic Year. View our full calendar to see what tickets are currently on sale and visit our website to learn about our other ongoing events, such as our Friday Night Lights On lecture series.
- Bowdler, Thomas. “A Letter to the Editor of the British Critic; Occasioned by the Censure Pronounced in That Work on ‘Johnson, Pope, Bowdler, Warburton, Theobald, Steevens, Reed, Malone, et Hoc Genus Omne, All the Herd of These and Meibomiuses of the British School.’ (Vide British Critic, April 1822, P.372.).” HathiTrust, Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, 1823, babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015082260913&view=1up&seq=1. Accessed 28 Jan. 2023.
- Lodge, Thomas. “Rosalind: Euphues’ Golden Legacy :: Internet Shakespeare Editions.” Internetshakespeare.uvic.ca, 1590, internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/doc/Rosalind_M/complete/index.html. Accessed 28 Jan. 2023.
- Loughlin-Chow, M. Clare. “Bowdler, Thomas (1754–1825), Writer and Literary Editor.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Sept. 2004, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/3032. Accessed 28 Jan. 2023.
- Shakespeare, William, et al. The Norton Shakespeare : Based on the Oxford Ed.. With an Essay on the Shakespearean Stage / by Andrew Gurr. 2nd ed., Norton, 2008.
- Shakespeare, William, and Thomas Bowdler. “The Family Shakespeare …” HathiTrust, Longman, Green, Longman, & Roberts, 1861, babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015034801673&view=1up&seq=11. Accessed 28 Jan. 2023.
- Shakespeare, William, and Juliet Dusinberre. As You like It. 2006. 3rd ed., Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, An Imprint Of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2016.
- Commonwealth of Virginia. “§ 22.1-16.8. Instructional Material; Sexually Explicit Content; Parental Notification.” Law.lis.virginia.gov, 2022, law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/22.1-16.8/. Accessed 28 Jan. 2023.
- Great Britain, et al. “The Statutes at Large, of England and of Great Britain : From Magna Carta to the Union of the Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland.” Internet Archive, London : Printed by G. Eyre and A. Strahan, 1811, pp. 678–79, archive.org/details/statutesatlarge02raitgoog/page/n8/mode/2up?view=theater&q=to+restrain+abuses. Accessed 28 Jan. 2023.
- State Library of New South Wales, and William Shakespeare. “First Folio (New South Wales), Page 203 :: Facsimile Viewer :: Internet Shakespeare Editions.” Internetshakespeare.uvic.ca, 31 Dec. 2018, internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/facsimile/bookplay/SLNSW_F1/ayl/index.html. Accessed 27 Jan. 2023.